Raptors vs. Celtics 2020 Playoff Preview: Mirror images on and off the floor

Boston Celtics' Jayson Tatum (0) works against Toronto Raptors' OG Anunoby (3) during the second half of an NBA basketball game. (Ashley Landis, Pool, AP)

Mirror images of one another, the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics will meet in the playoffs for the first time in the 25-season history they’ve been in the league together.

While both teams are blessed with big-time stars, tremendous depth across their lineups and hard-nosed defensive identities, it’s their similarities off the court that have become most apparent in recent days.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Milwaukee Bucks staged a boycott of their Game 5, first-round series matchup with the Orlando Magic in the wake of last weekend’s shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by Kenosha, Wis., police.

The idea to boycott games in order to show more demonstrable action in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight against racial injustice and police brutality was first floated by the Raptors and Celtics in media conferences leading up to the Bucks’ protest.

“It’s ongoing discussions. I think it is on the table,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse in a practice availability just a few hours before the Bucks opted to not take the floor. “There are some other ideas that are on the table as well.”

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Added the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum: “It’s an active discussion. Obviously, it started with the Raptors and obviously that’s who we’re playing. It’s been talked about with other guys on other teams. People are upset or angry and we’re just trying to come together and figure out a way we can do something. Obviously people are going to say, ‘Well, what is sitting out going to do?’ Obviously, if we sit out a game or the rest of the playoffs, we understand how big of an impact that will have.

“Everybody’s going to have to talk about it, continue to raise awareness. We don’t want to just keep playing and forget about what’s going on in the outside world, because it’s affecting us. It’s affecting everybody. We’re more than just basketball players — we’re people.”

The NBA announced on Wednesday that its three-game slate was being postponed and that Thursday’s contests – which included Game 1 between Toronto and Boston – were also postponed. NBA games will resume starting Saturday with the Raptors and Celtics tipping off Sunday at 1:00 p.m. ET.

In light of recent events, basketball doesn’t seem all that important, but on Thursday morning players reportedly decided they wanted to play out the remainder of this post-season. As such, it’ll be game on.

Here’s a closer look at this second-round matchup between the Raptors and Celtics.

Regular-season review

Head-to-head, the Celtics owned the season series 3-1, but with the Raptors using the same starters in just two of those four contests because of how banged up they’ve been all campaign long – in addition to one of those games coming during the NBA’s restart seeding period – it’s tough to take away much from their regular-season encounters that might be useful when trying to make assessments about this upcoming playoff series.

However, as mentioned before, when one looks at the entirety of the regular seasons of each team, it becomes apparent that both play remarkably similar to one another.

Toronto Raptors
 
Boston Celtics
110.8
Offensive Rating
112.8
104.7
Defensive Rating
106.5
6.1
Net Rating
6.3
45.8%
Field-Goal Percenage
46.1%
37.0%
Three-Point Percentage
36.4%
45.4
Rebounds Per Game
46.1
25.2
Assists Per Game
23.0
8.8
Steals Per Game
8.3
5.0
Blocks Per Game
5.6
14.8
Turnovers Per Game
13.8
18.8
Fast-Break Points Per Game
15.2

As the table above shows, the Raptors are a better overall defensive team but the Celtics have a slight edge in offensive efficiency. The most interesting intersection here is how good the Raptors are in transition – the league leader in fast-break points per game and points off turnovers per game – and how well the Celtics protect the ball, something that Nurse pointed out as a key aspect of the series.

“We love to score in transition and that’s one of the things we talk about,” said Nurse. “If we’re going to play all this darn defence, we better be getting something out of it at the other end. That’s gonna be a factor. We’re going to have to dig in and get into them and create some turnovers. I hope we can, we need them.”

And on the topic of all that “darn defence” Nurse was talking about, both the Raptors and Celtics play a lot of it.

Toronto and Boston were the second- and fourth-ranked defences in the league, respectively, this season and they did it in similar fashion with both sides playing an ultra-aggressive trapping, switching scheme designed to fluster opponents into making turnovers and rushed shots without allowing straight-line drives to the rim.

This is aided, as you can see in the two clips above, by versatile, fleet-footed defenders on both sides who are able to prevent deep dribble penetration and switch with impunity when caught up on screens in order to make a good contest.

Expect both teams to frustrate each other’s offence to no end in this series.

How each team fared in Round 1

Both the Raptors and Celtics swept their first-round opponents. But while Toronto’s plus-82 margin of victory for its series is certainly more impressive than Boston’s plus-47, when you take into account the Raptors were playing a severely undermanned and overmatch Brooklyn Nets team as opposed to the Celtics’ matchup in the Philadelphia 76ers – who may have been without Ben Simmons but still had key players Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris and Al Horford – it’s hard not to think Boston’s opening-round dominance was probably just a tad more impressive.

Outside of a Game 2 that saw them asleep at the wheel before finally turning it up in the fourth quarter, the Raptors weren’t really tested. But in the Celtics’ sweep of the 76ers, Boston had to overcome some adversity — most notably in Game 3 of their first-round series when they closed the contest on a 10-0 run and stole a 102-94 victory.

As far as momentum goes heading into this second-round clash, Boston’s “Big Three” of Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown are all averaging 21.5 points or more and are shooting the ball from the field pretty well.

The Raptors’ hot hands coming into the series are Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka, with all three shooting better than 52 per cent from the field.

And as for injury issues, Celtics forward Gordon Hayward left Game 1 of the series against the 76ers with what turned out to be an ankle sprain that is now keeping him out for at least four weeks, meaning he isn’t likely to see any action this round.

Kyle Lowry also suffered an ankle sprain in the closeout Game 4 against Brooklyn, and his status for the series is still up in the air.

Key matchups

During the seeding games, the Raptors played the Celtics in what amounted to a meaningless contest as neither team had much to play for in the standings other than personal pride.

Boston ended up blowing out Toronto in that matchup, 122-100, and though it seemed at the time like there wasn’t much to take away from the game, Nurse believes otherwise.

“I think there are some things to study,” said Nurse. “I mean, they kicked our butts from start to finish. It was not a game. We weren’t very good and they were very good. I give them credit. They really wanted to play us and they wanted to take it to us and that is exactly what they did. But there are some things to learn from that, too, just tactically watching it.”

Who are we to argue with the 2019-20 NBA Coach of the Year, right?

So, taking a look specifically at the butt-kicking the Raptors took from the Celtics earlier this month, here’s a look at the most important matchups in the series.

Vs. Tatum: Tatum is the Celtics’ top scorer and best overall player, and during the post-season he’s appeared raise his game even more, averaging 27 points on 48.7 per cent shooting against the 76ers, including a 45.2 per cent clip from outside. A naturally-gifted scorer, Tatum can fill it up from just about anywhere on the floor, but loves bombing triples from the wing in particular, as his season shot chart indicates:

Against the Raptors in that first bubble game, Tatum wasn’t overly impressive as he scored just 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting, but a notable takeaway from that performance was that Lowry got the bulk of duty defending him.

In fact, there’s no player Lowry has checked more this season than Tatum, an odd detail to consider at first but one that makes more sense when you consider OG Anunoby has primarily been given the Hayward assignment.

However, with Hayward essentially out of the picture this series and Lowry’s status still uncertain, there’s a good chance Nurse will look to put Anunoby on Tatum for no other reason than he is Boston’s most dangerous weapon.

“He has shown a level of super high interest in becoming a defensive stopper,” said Nurse of Anunoby. “He’s working at it, he’s got the desire, and it’s a sense of pride for him to go out there and play hard at the defensive end and guard the best players in this league.”

Like the Raptors, the Celtics have many weapons they can turn to, but a good starting point in trying to defeat Boston will be limiting Tatum, and Anunoby is just the kind of long, strong and athletic defender to do so.

Vs. Walker: Having been matched up against the dynamic Celtics guard for more than 25 and a half minutes this season, VanVleet will likely be relied upon to not only score, but slow down Boston’s second-best offensive option.

Walker came to the Celtics in a sign-and-trade deal last off-season as basically a direct replacement for the outgoing Kyrie Irving, and the team quickly meshed better with him than they had his predecessor.

A natural leader best known for his clutch play during his college career at the University of Connecticut, Walker isn’t a player that you would necessarily call super-efficient, but he has a knack for rising to the occasion and is blessed with one of the best handles in the game as well as lightning-quick burst that allows him to get to nearly any spot on the floor at will.

Over the course of the regular season, VanVleet held Walker to 8-of-25 shooting from the field and just a 5-for-16 mark from three-point range. The Raptors guard is well-equipped to deal with Walker’s strengths as he’s just as strong as Walker, has quick enough feet to keep up with him and is around the same height as him — so when Walker goes low on a crossover move, VanVleet will be more easily able to reach in to try to poke the ball away.

In that early August seeding game matchup, Walker was only 6-of-14 from the floor, but got uncorked from three-point range, going 4-for-10 as he finished with 17 points.

Like Tatum, Walker prefers launching from distance from above the break, a difficult area to defend because of how quick, shifty and tight-handled a player he is. With VanVleet likely to get primary defensive duty on him, however, slowing him down – at least a little – is something the Raptors should be able to bank on.

Vs. Brown: Not just one of the most outspoken voices advocating for change in the bubble, Brown is also a hell of a basketball player. He, along with Tatum and Walker, make up the trio of Celtics players who all averaged 20-or-more points in the regular season, a trend that has continued into the post-season so far.

Though not quite as offensively dynamic as Tatum and Walker, Brown is still a dangerous all-around player who boasted strong shooting splits of 48.1 per cent from the field, 38.2 per cent from three and 72.4 per cent from the foul line this season.

There isn’t an exact matchup for Brown as the Raptors most often used the now-injured Patrick McCaw on him during the regular season. So the solution may be to just rely on the team’s scheme to try to shut him down.

Brown is at his most lethal when he can drive to the basket, so it might be better to invite him to try to make those drives where there almost assuredly will be lots of help waiting for him at the rim.

Brown’s a tough cover, especially because he often gets overlooked with much of the spotlight on Tatum and Walker, but he’s not a player the Raptors can afford to let run amok, so a team effort might be what’s required to ensure he doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

Series X-factors

Given the nature of how well-balanced these two teams are, it’s hard to pinpoint x-factor-like guys in the normal way that’s defined. However, it speaks to how deep both of these teams are when essentially any member of their rotations could break out for a huge game and win one for their team.

Pascal Siakam: Though he’s the team’s No. 1 option and was the Raptors’ all-around best player during the regular season, Siakam’s game has still seemed a bit off since the team first arrived in Orlando. Throughout his time in the bubble (including the playoffs), he’s shot just 40.3 per cent from the field. Granted, during that same time period he’s averaged 18.3 points per game, which certainly isn’t bad, but when you consider before the restart he was averaging 23.6 points per game and shooting 45.9 per cent from the field, his production hasn’t looked right.

During this second-round affair, though, he’ll have an opportunity to break out of his funk in a big-time series matched up against a big-time defender.

Siakam saw a lot Brown during the regular season and performed all right against him, scoring 23 points on 10-of-24 shooting in about 12:40 of time when guarded by the Celtics wing.

The efficiency isn’t where you want it to be, but for the most part, if the Celtics were to go with Brown on Siakam again, the Raptors star should have an advantage as he’s bigger and probably quicker and more athletic, meaning moves like the one shown below should be constantly available for him.

Siakam isn’t a player to be ignored, but given some of the struggles he’s experienced there’s a chance that him finding his game again might take the Celtics a bit by surprise.

Marc Gasol: To say Gasol had a bad series in Round 1 would be putting it lightly. The veteran big man put up puny averages of 6.3 points and 4.5 rebounds while shooting a dreadful 38.1 per cent from the field and 27.3 per cent from deep. He was still passing the ball well – averaging 3.5 assists per game in the series – but there were times when Gasol was so bad in the first round he looked outright unplayable.

With a new round, though, comes a new team and a new opportunity to prove himself. The Celtics’ centre duo of Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter is a clear weak point when compared to the Gasol-Serge Ibaka tag team. Whereas Gasol and Ibaka are both good players on offence and defence, Theis is more of a defensive specialist while Kanter is an all-offence big man.

The Raptors, and especially Gasol, can exploit this particularly when Kanter’s in the game. Kanter isn’t good at defending in space and the top-of-the-key area that Gasol likes to operate from may as well be foreign territory for him. This should allow Gasol to make reads to pass or shoot the ball with relative impunity.

Marcus Smart: Boston’s best defender, Smart has guarded everyone from towering forwards like Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo to lightning-quick guards such as Donovan Mitchell and Russell Westbrook.

It’s nearly impossible to try to limit Smart’s defensive impact and the Raptors probably won’t be able to do so even if they game plan to do just that. However, what Toronto can’t afford is allowing Smart to get going offensively.

During the regular season, Smart averaged 12.9 points while shooting a horrible 37.5 per cent from the field. Still, he can easily explode for a 30-point game as he’s a streaky shooter and, when he starts to feel good about himself, can score in bunches, which, in turn, has proven to fire up the rest of his team since he’s something of Boston’s emotional leader.

If the Raptors let Smart get uncorked this series, he would suddenly be a big fourth option for the Celtics and would just add to the list of things that they would have to worry about.

Daniel Theis: As mentioned before, Theis is one of Boston’s two most-used centres. He starts games for them, he finishes games for them and it’s all because he’s a great defender. In drop-backs, the pick-and-roll, protecting the rim or anything else Theis excels.

Like the Raptors, much of the Celtics’ offence is fuelled by their defence, and Theis is a big part of that. A rare player that doesn’t have to score to impact the game, his defence alone could open opportunities for Celtics to take a few games in this series.

Series prediction

Raptors in seven.

These are two evenly-matched teams both on the court and off it and, honestly, this series feels like a coin toss.

However, the Raptors’ championship experience and the advantage they have inside with Gasol and Ibaka should be just enough to edge them back into the Eastern Conference Finals.

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